Will the most tumultuous, fascinating presidential election of a lifetime prove to be only the second-most-important political story of the year?
The candidates yesterday scrambled to craft reactions to the emerging contender for first place, as the administration and senior lawmakers reeled from the rank-and-file rebuff of their $700 billion finger in the Wall Street dike. With the next moves on Capitol Hill clouded in uncertainty, both camps issued statements that at once condemned and exemplified the partisanship that each blamed for the bill's defeat.
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain each had tentatively endorsed the bailout measure. Its defeat was likely to prove more problematic for the Republican McCain, however, both because of his surprising decision last week to assume a role in the negotiations and because of the overall intensified focus on the economy -- an issue that poll after poll has shown to be more hospitable terrain for Democrats in general, and Mr. Obama in particular.
After a morning speech in which he appeared to assume the measure's passage -- and to take credit for his role in that illusory development -- a somber Mr. McCain told reporters in Iowa that this was not an hour to place blame, immediately after having done just that.
"Our leaders are expected to leave partisanship at the door and come to the table to solve our problems. Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused unnecessary partisanship in the process," he said. "Now is not the time to fix the blame. It's time to fix the problem."
A spokesman for the Democratic candidate displayed similar inconsistency in responding to GOP attacks. "Today's action in Congress as well as the angry and hyper-partisan statement released by the McCain campaign are exactly why the American people are disgusted with Washington," Bill Burton, Mr. Obama's press secretary, said in a statement that at the same time called upon members of both parties to "join together and act in a way that prevents an economic catastrophe."
The timing of the House's surprise vote was awkward for the McCain campaign. With his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican opened his day in Columbus, Ohio, with a speech that offered no inkling of the impending vote and its devastating impact on world credit markets.
"I went to Washington last week to make sure that the taxpayers of Ohio and across this great country were not left footing the bill for mistakes made on Wall Street and in Washington," he said. "Some people have criticized my decision, but I will never, ever be a president who sits on the sidelines when this country faces a crisis. Some of you may have noticed, but it's not my style to simply 'phone it in.'
"I am a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I believe our leaders belong 'in the arena' when our country faces a challenge. I've never been afraid of stepping in to solve problems for the American people, and I'm not going to stop now."
By the time Mr. McCain's plane was due to take off for Iowa, the House had made its surprising move, but there was no immediate reaction from the Republican candidate. Later, he spoke to reporters in Iowa with the brief statement condemning Democratic partisanship.
Last week, Mr. McCain dramatically announced the suspension of his campaign and called for postponement of the first presidential debate so he could repair to Washington and join the talks on the package that would eventually be voted down yesterday. While a deal had yet to be reached, even among the congressional leadership, he deemed that sufficient progress had been made for him to join Mr. Obama in the Ole Miss debate Friday night.
Congressional Democrats derided his presence in Washington as a campaign stunt that had, if anything, impeded progress toward an agreement. Mr. McCain's partisans contended that he had played a crucial role in moving the talks along by representing the interests of House Republicans, the caucus always most skeptical of the White House effort to craft a credit-market rescue.
"What Senator McCain was able to do was to help bring all of the parties to the table, including the House Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass this," Steve Schmidt, his chief strategist, told an interviewer Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Whichever of those views is correct, it's clear that the Republican nominee's temporary presence did not persuade enough GOP lawmakers to come around to the accord supported by their leaders.
While Mr. Obama apparently expected a favorable vote as well, the timing of the day's legislative and campaign events let him make remarks in his first stop, in Colorado, that acknowledged the jeopardy the legislation faced. "There are going to be some bumps and trials and tribulations and ups and downs before we get this rescue package done," the Democratic nominee said. "It is important for the American public and for the markets to stay calm, because things are never smooth in Congress, and to understand that it will get done."
Mr. Obama, whose poll numbers were already ticking upward after Friday's debate, may be in a position to reap political gains from the heightened concern about the nation's finances. National and state polls have consistently shown him with an advantage when voters are asked who they trust more to handle the economy. A new Muhlenberg College survey of Pennsylvania voters, for example, showed the Democrat with an advantage in that category of 48 percent to 36 percent.
When the Gallup Poll asked voters over the weekend whether they approved or disapproved of the performance of a variety of figures in the financial crisis, Mr. Obama fared better than most. Forty-six percent of respondents said they approved of his role, while nearly as many, 43 percent, said they did not approve. While less than an overwhelming endorsement, those marks topped Mr. McCain, for whom 31 percent expressed approval and 51 percent disapproval.
President Bush found 68 percent disapproval and 28 percent approval. For Congressional Republican leaders, 58 percent disapproved, and 31 approved; 50 percent disapproved of the Democratic leadership, and 30 percent approved.
Those numbers suggest that the continuing crisis poses clear risks for Mr. Obama as well. He did not aggressively inject himself into the talks, as his rival did. But he has, however reluctantly, endorsed a package that is deeply unpopular with the public -- a message that was implicit in the roster of no votes.
Among Pennsylvania incumbents in more vigorously contested races, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Luzerne, was the only one who voted in favor of the bill. Three local lawmakers under challenge all voted no: Reps. Phil English, R-Erie; Jason Altmire, D-Bradford Woods; and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.
The Associated Press identified a similar pattern nationally. Of 19 incumbents deemed most vulnerable by the AP, 13 voted against the bill.
The House has adjourned at least until tomorrow. By then, it may be clearer whether the record market slide will have altered voter perceptions, and, with them, both the bailout's prospects and its enduring influence on the presidential race.
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.